Kuelap Ruins, Northern Peru
For some strange reason tourists hate to visit places where they encounter other tourists, even to the point were they try to jump through convoluted semantic hoops and try to deny the fact that they are even tourists…calling themselves ‘travelers’, ‘explorers’ or, my personal favorite – and the one I often use to describe myself – ‘Dharma Bums’, instead. That was one of the reasons I coined the tongue-in-cheek term ‘Extreme Tourism’ to describe my 2002 travels in Afghanistan.
So, for all you pissant wannabes sitting around the restaurants and bars on Kaosan Road trying to one-up each other about how tough and adventurous you are, I’ve got a destination just for you: the ruins of Kuelap, on a remote 3,000 meter ridge several hours from Chachapoyas, in Northern Peru.
Before I get into my personal experiences getting there and exploring the ruins, I’ll save you the time looking it up and quote the pertinent entry in Wikipedia:
“The fortress of Kuelap or Cuélap (Chachapoyas, Amazonas, Perú), associated with the Chachapoyas culture, consists of a walled city, with massive exterior stone walls surrounding more than four hundred buildings. The complex, situated on a ridge overlooking the Utcubamba Valley in northern Peru, is roughly 600 meters in length and 110 meters in width. It could have been built to defend against the Huari or other hostile peoples. However, evidence of these hostile groups at the site is minimal. Radiocarbon dating samples show that construction of the structures started in the 6th century AD and the complex was occupied until the Early Colonial period (1532-1570). Through the pre-Columbian, conquest and colonial periods, there are only four brief written references to Kuelap. It was rediscovered in 1843. The ruins of Kuelap are located at the summit of a hill that rises on the left bank of the Utcubamba, at coordinates 6°25′07″ S 77°55′24″ W. The monumental ruins of Kuelap are situated at 3000 metres above sea level. Judging from its sheer size, Kuelap’s construction required considerable effort, rivaling or surpassing in size other archaeological structures in the Americas.”
To put this into perspective, Kuelap is half again as big as the much more famous, and very touristy, Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, and over 1,000 years older. Plus you need to consider the fact that Machu Picchu has been extensively reconstructed for yuppie tourists, and Kuelap is still pretty much in the state in which it was found. The government of Peru has to limit the number of tourists at Machu Picchu to 2,500 people per day…when I visited Kuelap there were approximately 35 people there, of whom only 12 were foreigners, the rest were local Peruvian tourists.
I first read about Kuelap several years ago in a Lonely Planet article about places to visit before they are overrun. This seems to be quite true. When I was there I talked to a local tour guide and he said that there were 12,000 visitors the year before, of which 4,000 were foreigners…if you divide that number by 365 days, that gives you a figure of nearly 11 visitors per day, which was almost exactly what I observed. In 2010 he said that there had been half that number! The key seems to be access. There is no functioning airport in Chachapoyas, and it took us two days on mud-slicked dirt roads through a cloud forest to reach the town from Vilcambamba, Ecuador, and several days later, when we left on the night bus to Huanchaco, on the northern coast of Peru, it took 12 hours on one of the worst, bumpiest, twistiest, windiest most carsickness-inducing roads in the country. Not something the average, Machu Picchu-bound tourist would want to endure. But once the roads are paved and/or a regular air service instigated, “Goodnight, Irene” – it will become just another stop on the Incan tourist trail.
Even five years ago it would have taken two days hitchhiking on trucks or taking local chicken buses to reach the town nearest to the ruins, then several hours of steep hiking to reach them. Now it was easy to book a seat on a van from the Hotel Revash, with guide, and they will drive you to the foot of the ruins. Still many hours of dirt roads – winding, switch-backed dirt roads – to get there. It was a full day of high-altitude adventure, and well worth the minimal cost. There was one other van-full of Peruvian tourists, with four foreigners, and a pair of foreign hikers with a guide. The ruins were so extensive that no one group ever really bumped into another. For hours and hours we hiked the ruins, explored the round remains of huts and buildings. There was a single, restored hut with thatched roof as an example of what the buildings in fortress might have looked like. We spent the day trekking up and down steep stairs and walking through overgrown, winding pathways lined with tropical flowers. My daughter and I have had enough experience hiking and trekking in Ladakh, at 4,000 meters, and twice I’ve made the kora around Kang Rimpoche in Tibet, over the 5,630 meter Dolma La, so the 3,000 meter Kuelap wasn’t anything for us to worry about. But, if you are not used to hiking at altitude, it could well be a problem.
The highlight of the ruins was a huge, circular temple shaped like an upside down cone, wider at the top than the bottom. At the base of a well inside they found 89 skeletons, probably the remains of human sacrifices. Most archeologists consider Kuelap to have been a fortress and religious center rather than a city. Several rectangular buildings showed that, late in its history, it was conquered by the Incan culture, since the Chachapoyas culture built circular houses and even the wall surrounding the fortress was wavy rather than straight.
For fans of serious weirdness, there are several villages in the area inhabited by indigenous natives with blonde hair and blue eyes! Wayward Vikings who wandered up the Amazon over a thousand years ago? No one knows the details of their origin, but the only sure fact was that they were there long before the Incan invaders, let alone the Spanish Conquistadors.